At this point of his career, we know what we are going to get from Mattias Ekholm. He’s solid, steady and consistent.
He just completed his fifth full season in the league and finished one point shy of his career high in points with 34. A total in the low 30’s is a good productive season for Ekholm in the points department. He’s not looked at as a guy who needs to score points to be relevant. He’s a rock steady defender who’s calming influence on the back-end allows others like P.K. Subban or Ryan Ellis to play more of a free flowing game.
For comparison’s sake, take a look at how he compares to Victor Hedman, who’s been a Norris Trophy finalist each of the last two seasons. Ekholm won’t produce the offense that Hedman does, but his possession and impact on goal numbers are on par or better.
Ekholm was paired with Roman Josi for most of the early part of the year after the Sam Girard trade. Playing with Josi forced Ekholm to his weakside, somewhat limiting his effectiveness on zone exits. Together however they were a very effective duo in limiting chances for the opponent. Once Ryan Ellis returned from injury after Christmas, Ekholm moved to his natural side playing mostly with P.K. Subban and to a lesser extent Ellis himself.
His possession numbers at both ends of the ice are very good. If we adjust for score and venue, Ekholm is in the Top-10 in the NHL among D-men in CF%, the advantage he gains for the team is skewed just slightly to eliminate chances against over shots for. Impressive due to his comparative share of defensive zone starts.
He’s not a static player at the blue-line, although he does play more conservatively than whoever he’s paired with. He’s not afraid to drift into the slot to get a shot off or carry the puck in deep, as we will see in the goals below.
Lastly from a pure numbers perspective, he makes pretty much every defender who plays with him better possession wise. The interesting one here is the change in Ekholm away from Josi. He becomes more “fun”? I guess that’s what happens when Subban and Ellis are the replacements!
Although it came early in the game, I’m going with Ekholm’s game winner against Colorado in the first round as the best moment of the year.
I think this was the worst moment of the season for everyone.
Overall Grade: A-
I don’t want to be too critical of Ekholm because he delivers exactly what’s asked of him and he’s been doing so for a number of years. He’s finally getting recognition from around the league just how well rounded of a player he is, but I see the areas he can become even better, perhaps the best defensive play driver in the league. That’s not hyperbole either.
I wish he wouldn’t dump the puck in so much. You see from the blue lines below hes actually fairly effective at carrying or passing the puck into the offensive zone, but the volume of dump-ins is closer to guys like Irwin-Weber or Emelin. He dumps it in like a third pairing guy.
He also surrenders the blue line on entries against much more than I’d like him too. Rather shockingly, he does such a good job at suppressing shots against because his in-zone defense is very good, but you don’t have to defend in the zone if you force more dumps or break up plays at the blue line.
I fell behind in my own manual tracking of the Predators blue line as the season progressed, but the data matches the eye test. Subban was very aggressive in preventing zone entries, Ekholm was more passive. Now granted when Subban and Ekholm played together, you don’t need both partners to be aggressive. So his style is complimentary to a more aggressive partner like Subban, but away from him he could stand up a bit more at the blue line forcing an uncontrolled entry.
Lastly is how he exits the zone. The first half of the season he was playing on his weak side which makes it more difficult to exit the zone cleanly, but one of the maddening things about watching Ekholm is how well he’d gain possession of the puck only to clear it back out to the neutral zone and surrender possession. He has enough puck skills to create more clean, controlled exits.
With only minor improvements in how he defends the blue line, in how he exits his own zone and enters the offensive zone, we could really see a guy who could really be considered the best shutdown defenseman and perhaps the best pure possession defender in the league. He’s right at that brink. That’s why I gave him an A-. Maybe it’s a bit picky but there is room to take that marginal next step.